Who Was Nelle Peters? Why People Want To Save Work Of Female Kansas City Architect

Jan 14, 2016

It seems all but certain three West Plaza apartment buildings designed by Nelle Peters will soon be demolished.  

Nelle Nichols Peters was one of the first female architects in Kansas City. Three of the apartment buildings she designed are likely to be demolished.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections / Kansas City Public Library

On Wednesday, a Kansas City Council committee recommended against historic designation for the three buildings at 47th and Summit, which were built in the 1920s and purchased two years ago for $3.6 million. A representative for Price Brothers told the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee that there’d be no way to recoup the cost of renovating the buildings.

The full council still has to vote, but the Historic Kansas City Foundation’s Amanda Crawley told KCUR’s Steve Kraske no one is expecting a miracle.

The buildings are significant because Peters was one of the few female architects working in the city at the time.

“Certainly there are a lot of buildings in Kansas City that are protected that are by her, but we’ve also lost a lot,” Crawley said on Up To Date.

So who was Nelle Peters?

Not those Nichols

Peters was born Nellie Elizabeth Nichols on Dec. 11, 1884, according to the State Historical Society of Missouri. Her parents were North Dakota farmers. The Nichols family later moved to Minnesota, and then to Iowa. 

The three buildings slated for demolition are in the 4700 block of Summit Street, just west of the Country Club Plaza.
Credit Google Earth

Peters attended Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa, at the turn of the century before moving to Sioux City to pursue her dream of becoming an architect. There, firms were reluctant to hire a woman with no formal training. But eventually, Peters convinced one to take a chance on her. She earned $3 per week working as a draftswoman.

Going to Kansas City

Eisentraut, Colby and Pottenger, the architecture firm that hired Peters, eventually sent her to Kansas City, but there wasn’t much work for her because so few developers would work with a female architect. She eventually left the firm to open her own shop, charging $15 to draft a plan for a small house.

It was during this time she met and married William H. Peters, a design engineer for the Kansas City Terminal Railroad. The marriage didn’t last, though Nelle Peters kept his name.

Leading architect

Peters’ career took off in 1913, when she teamed up with developer Charles E. Phillips, who built the Phillips Hotel. Peters specialized in hotels and large apartment buildings, often built around a central courtyard.

Notable Peters-designed properties in Kansas City include the Ambassador Hotel and the Mark Twain Apartments. University of Missouri alumni will remember the Belvedere and the Beverly on Hitt Street in Columbia, which Peters also designed.

But Peters’ career flagged in the 1930s and ’40s, when the Great Depression and World War II slowed demand for efficiency apartments.

Peters designed the Ambassador Hotel, 3560 Broadway, then the largest hotel in the city. She specialized in hotel design and large apartments centered around a courtyard.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections / Kansas City Public Library

No longer in demand

There are two Nelle Peters historic districts in Kansas City, but many of her buildings – such as the Bellclair Apartments – have been demolished.

Part of the problem? Peters mostly designed housing.

“She was capable of minimizing the total area taken up by her designs while still giving them an open feeling and functional spaces inside, especially with her usable kitchenette designs,” writes Jason Roe for the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

For example, kitchens in the Mark Twain building are all less than 70 square feet.

So while Peters’ efficiency apartments were in demand at the time, developers say they have a hard time renting them today.

Peters’ legacy

As work became less available, Peters worked as a seamstress to make ends meet. She died in a Sedalia, Missouri, nursing home in 1974, seven years after she set down her drafting pencil.

Nelle Peters told the Kansas City Journal in 1925 she didn't think many women had the 'mechanical mind' needed to be an architect, which she said required a lot of monotonous, tiresome drafting.
Credit State Historical Society of Missouri

Elizabeth Engel with the State Historical Society writes that Peters probably benefited from a lack of regulations for architects in the first half of the 20th century.

“(It) meant there were no educational requirements to prevent people from pursuing a career in architecture,” according to Engel. “This allowed Peters to enter a business otherwise off-limits to most women.”

Peters told the Kansas City Journal in 1925 she didn’t think most women would be interested in a career in architecture because it required a “mechanical mind.”

But she very much enjoyed the work.

“I like to feel like I am doing something worthwhile,” Peters said, “something fundamentally necessary.”

Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.